The Pale King

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This is (almost certainly) the last bit of fiction we'll see from David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide back in 2008. It is technically unfinished, re-assembled from a partial manuscript and an agglomeration of notes, disk files, and marginalia. His editor compressed all that into 540 published pages, and—I speak as a fan—it's still kind of a mess. But a pretty wonderful mess.

It's roughly centered around the Internal Revenue Service's Peoria office just off the "Self-Service Parkway", a beltway around the city. It is set in the mid-80's, and considers the various offbeat IRS employees, their histories and talents. One of the employees is "David Foster Wallace", who snagged his job there via pull from his parents, something to do after getting tossed out of his college due to a side business where less academically-inclined students outsourced their writing assignments to him.

All this (spoiler, sort of) is completely fictional, but told in such a way that I had to check reputable sources.

DFW's story with the IRS is unfortunately incomplete, but his initial day at work is described with painstaking detail. He is supposed to assume a lowly GS-9 position with the other dweebs, but gets bureaucratically mistaken for a different David F. Wallace, an important GS-13. This causes some minor misadventures, not least of which is a surprising interaction with a female employee.

There are plenty of other folks. Notable is Leonard Steyck: an early chapter describes his boyhood, where he is (literally) Christ-like in cheerfulness, charity towards others, turning the other cheek, etc. Naturally everyone despises Leonard, including his parents. And there's Claude Sylvanshine, who has a supernatural talent of becoming aware of minute details of people in the vicinity. While in a meeting, he discovers flaws in the mitochondrial DNA of one of his co-workers, due to her mother briefly taking thalidomide while she was gestating; he becomes aware of another's shoe size and total blood volume (but not his name).

I don't suppose it would be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed it. I found it (at various points) hilarious, poignant, and insightful. But, all the while, a resigned sadness knowing that his voice is silenced by his own hand. (I wrote my thoughts on that last August.)